"Wow, this place is humid."
University of Calgary swim Coach Mike Blondal just stares at me. Fighting the silence, I try to explain my brilliant comment about the U of C Aquatic Centre.
"Um, I don't swim much. I try, but it's more of a dog-paddle flail."
Silence and pity from Blondal. Pity for the person who would never survive in Blondal's world-a Galapagos paradise amidst a harsh Calgary clime.
Make no mistake, though, nature works these waters, enforcing Darwinian law on all her subjects. From super-predator to future prey, she exacts her toll: stripping away the old and weak, cutting out the diseased, and leaving only the best. In doing so, she leaves the best hope for the future in the evolution of swimming-the difference between victory and near-miss.
Blondal knows this all too well. Banners of past Canadian Interuniversity Althetic Union glory-his glory-hang like trophy heads mounted to a wall. ciau men's championship after championship, as well as the 1997 Canada West men's and women's titles, serve as a testament to excellence in swimming and Blondal's skill. It would seem a virtual utopia, but a close scan proves otherwise, for there is still one beast that has eluded the great hunter, the women's ciau championship. Blondal has it in his sight, though, and if he gets his way, he'll add the women's ciau to his already impressive collection.
It all comes down to a savage face-off between the Univeristy of British Columbia and the U of C.
"UBC's got a very strong women's team," said Blondal. "They have for the last three years, so it will be hard to win. Our women's team is building up, but we've got some very good young recruits and veterans. We have the ladies in the water that could put us into a winning situation. Our ideal scenario is to challange for the ciau title and I want to challenge. It's just gonna be a question of playing our cards right."
And Blondal has a few veteran aces to lay down, like Olympians Andrea Schwartz and Andrea Moodie. They also expect nothing less than greatness from their young talent-in particular, breaststroke champion and future Olympian Tara Sloan.
Don't confuse Sloan's rookie status with her skill level. It is the young who thrive in their natural environment, and Sloan is no exception-she's a natural talent.
The third-year national team veteran walked away from last year's World Cup with nine medals, breaking the 100m breaststroke Canadian record, in Germany, with a time of 1:07.96. Ten years of investment, thousands of hours of practice, and, above all else, a fierce dedication culminating in immense success. It was that same success that drove Sloan's need to pull out of the ferocious swimming world and take a summer sabatical.
"I knew I didn't want to quit," she said. "But I needed a break, and chance to step away. I take swimming very seriously and I'm so intense about it, I needed a breather. Over the summer, I even asked myself 'how can I train so much?' I found out I love competing-the intensity of it and seeing my results from working hard. I found out I love the people, I love the travel-that I just love to swim. I'm coming in this year with a very different attitude-to just have a blast. I know if I do that, I'll swim my best."
A philosophy of fun may seem contrary to the survival of the fittest, but in Sloan's case she's always known how to best deal with pressure.
"As I've gotten older, I've seen pressure all around, but you put enough pressure on yourself that you don't need to accept any externally," the young swimmer mentioned. "You just take it in stride, and motivate yourself-you have to to be a sucessful athlete. It's always just set goal, achieve goal. Whenever I do something, I just say 'great, I did it' and then move on."
Her personal goals this year include regaining her top spot in Canada and rising back up in the world standings while having fun doing it. She also wants to be a committed member of the varsity squad which includes capturing the ciau title.
"Obviously, the ciau championship is a team goal," said Sloan. "I'm first-year varsity, so I guess I'm the rookie, but people are looking to me to take a leadership role, and I want to assume that role and be a big part of the team's success. The women's team is awesome and we're going to pull together as a team to win."
And it is a team effort that is the difference between feast or famine in swimming. Every member of the squad functions like a unit within an enclosed system; they fall into place with precision to achieve homeostais. If one is removed, the system is forever altered and in some cases, unable to function because it's the total team points that dictate success.
For the first time in 10 years, there's enough depth and talent to justify Blondal carrying a full 18-member squad to ciau competition. With a superior work ethic, one that's stronger than ubc's, his success is ensured. This work ethic is underlined by Blondal's minimum 25 hour training week. With the pressures of school, and hopes for a social life piled on top of those training demands, it makes for a hectic existence.
"It's time management," said Blondal. "Not everyone may carry a full load, and they may take an extra year to finish school, but it's not a problem. They've been brought up to do it since they were young, and they've had to get through high school, so university should be
easier for them because they've got free reign. It's juggling their schedules that's the big problem. Sometimes, class conflicts with workout times, so it's a matter of making that time up."
Sloan seems to be as at ease with this juggling act as she is in the water, although she admits she doesn't lead a typical student life.
"I'm in General Studies right now and I don't know what I'm going to take, at least not totally okay, I have no idea what I want to do," she said with a laugh. "While balancing my sport with school and a social life is, at times, a struggle, I've always had to deal with it. Swimming is a huge part of my life. It's just what I do."
Watch for Sloan and the rest of the women's swim team at the Canada West held at the U of C Jan. 22-24.They're looking for a trophy.